Alberta has introduced dramatic cuts to the amount of cash individuals can donate to political parties and candidates and limits to how much each party can spend during an election, arguing the changes are necessary to limit influence from the affluent.
The changes, capping total political contributions at $4,000 per calendar year for individuals, will bring Alberta roughly into line with federal donation limits and also with limits passed last month in Ontario that take effect in January.
But the proposed legislation will also mean Alberta has the most stringent restrictions among its neighbours: British Columbia and Saskatchewan have none.
"Elections in Alberta have been run under a system that takes power away from the ordinary people and places it in the hands of the wealthy and the well-connected," Christina Gray, Alberta's Minister Responsible for Democratic Renewal, told reporters prior to introducing the legislation. "We are ending the days of backroom deals and pay-to-play politics."
The changes would also severely hamper the once-dominant Progressive Conservatives in Alberta, a party struggling to make a comeback and currently in the midst of a bruising leadership context.
The legislation rolled out Monday by Alberta's NDP government means the $4,000 limit would apply to donations made to parties, constituency associations, candidates, leadership hopefuls and nomination contests.
By comparison, Albertans are currently allowed to hand parties $15,000 a year and $30,000 in a campaign period, less any amount contributed that year. Current legislation also allows for contributions to candidates and associations on top of the annual party limit.
Federally, individuals can donate a collective $3,050 a year to a political party and riding associations. They can donate a further $1,525 to a party leadership contestant.
Ontario last month slashed contribution rules, limiting individual donations to $1,200 to a political party, $1,200 to candidates and another $1,200 to its constituency associations or nomination contestants in an election year. Those rules are effective in January.
The Wildrose Party says the proposals are a positive step in reforming Alberta's election-finance laws.
"There's a lot of common ground between the NDP and Wildrose on getting what we call 'big money' out of politics," said Jason Nixon, the Official Opposition's MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.
Monday's announcement did not impose restrictions on taxpayer-funded advertisements, such as those promoting government policies, leading up to elections. "We're a little bit disappointed in that," Mr. Nixon said. "We do hope that they go further."
Ms. Gray said that legislation is under review but she did not provide a timeline for potential changes.
The $4,000 annual individual donation limit covers more than cash contributions. Tickets to fundraising dinners, for example, will still count as donations. This approach should, in theory, prevent the wealthy from accessing politicians when others cannot.
The individual contribution rules will come at greater expense to Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party, if previous donation habits continue.
The NDP and its constituency associations in 2015 did not receive any individual donations totalling the current limit of $15,000 a year and received only six individual donations over $4,000, according to Elections Alberta's disclosures. The Wildrose and its constituency associations collected just one individual donation of $15,000 and three more over $4,000.
The PC Party and its associations tallied five individual donations reaching $15,000 and 11 over the proposed reduced cap. This excludes corporate and union donations, which the NDP, with the support of the other parties, ended earlier this year.
Ric McIver, the PC's interim leader, said getting "big money" out of politics makes for a "nice soundbite" but his party will need more time to review the proposals to see whether that will actually be the result. He is disappointed the government put the bill forward without more all-party committee discussions.
The Alberta government also proposed a $2-million limit on the amount a party can spend between the time of an election writ dropping to when the polls close, a first for Alberta. Each candidate will be limited to $50,000 per election, although exceptions will be made for qualifying expenses such as travel and meals. Spending in by-election races will top out at $23,000, the government said. There are 87 seats in Alberta's legislature.
The proposals also address third-party contributions, disclosures and advertisements.
Third parties, similar to U.S. "political action committees," will be allowed to spend only $150,000 on advertisements during an official election period. Of that, only $3,000 can be earmarked to support or oppose candidates in each riding. Third parties will be able to spend freely outside elections, in part to satisfy potential challenges to limits on free speech, the government said. Donations to third parties must be disclosed to Elections Alberta and the third party must be identified in its advertising.